Bad Medicines: Mercury and Self-Medication in the Civil War

During the Civil War, George Washington’s Ferry Farm was the site of Union Army encampments that included some defensive works like a trench dug into the crest of the ridge overlooking the river.  In that trench and throughout Ferry Farm’s landscape, Union soldiers lost and threw away a wide array of military gear and personal belongings, which our archaeologists frequently excavate.

Civil War Trench

Excavated area containing the footprint of the 18th century Washington house at Ferry Farm and showing a 19th century Civil War trench running the length of the house and beyond.

This blog post highlights an intriguing artifact excavated from the trench: a diminutive glass bottle.  This bottle is not so much interesting because of what it is – it’s a very common medicine style bottle for the mid-19th century– but rather what’s inside.  Clearly visible within the bottle is a hard black substance and for years we’ve wondered what the substance may be.

Medicine bottle containing mercury residue

Medicine bottle excavated by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and containing an mystery residue.

Enter Ruth Ann Armitage, our amazing chemist friend from Eastern Michigan University.  Over the years, she and her colleagues have generously used their extremely fancy equipment to analyze many of the residues we’ve recovered archaeologically. So we chipped off a little fragment of the substance in the bottle and sent it to her lab.

The sample was analyzed using scanning electron microscopy (SEM).  SEM works by shooting a beam of electrons at the sample, which gives you an image of its surface topography.  Backscattered electrons (BSE), collected in a different detector, tell you about the elemental composition.  In a BSE image, the contrast in the image is related to the atomic number of the material, with brighter areas showing high number elements (usually metals) and darker areas representing low number elements (like carbon). X-rays are also produced when the electron beam hits the sample, so an x-ray detector allows the chemist to do energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS) to map out specifically what elements are present in the sample.  To put it simply, all of these techniques are good at alerting the chemist to the elements within a residue.

Our sample was also run through DART (direct in real time) mass spectrometry.  This technique is good at detecting organic components within a substance.  It’s important to note here that this is not an episode of CSI and a reading does not automatically tell you what is in the bottle.

Mercury residue analysis 1

A magnified image BED of sample, which is clearly stratified with darker low atomic number elements such as carbon at the top. The brighter areas represent higher atomic number elements, in this case, mercury.

That being said, almost immediately, Ruth Ann responded and we weren’t disappointed: “Did you know there’s mercury in this?”  Nope, we did not.

However, this discovery was not too surprising given the use of mercury in many medicines for thousands of years.  Now a days it’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t drink mercury…or touch it…or inhale it.  Believe it or not many people did not accept mercury’s dangers until well into the 20th century.  Some people born in the 1980s and before might even remember playing with the little balls of mercury from a broken thermometer, am I right?  As weird as it seems this wasn’t that dangerous because mercury is not toxic in such small concentrations.  However, if you were born a little further back you may remember a substance called calomel (mercury chloride), which was marketed as a cure all. Perhaps most tragically, it was as a common teething medication for children until the 1950s.  For a long time, mercury was seen as a potent healing metal and it was readily rubbed on skin, consumed, and vaporized for immediate effect on the lungs.

And while all of these treatments using mercury did little to address the body’s medical problem, mercury still caused an immediate bodily response, which convinced people it was working to cure their ailments.  When applied topically, it burned. When introduced into the body, it caused a person to sweat, salivate, and have diarrhea. The mucous membranes also went into overdrive, leading many to believe that the bad stuff in your system making you sick was being purged by the mercury.   The reality, of course, was that the body was trying desperately to rid itself of poison, the mercury.  That being said, mercury does actually have a place in the medical world and can be useful, it just took a little while for people to learn how to properly utilize it.

So, if the residue inside our bottle was medicine, what medicine was it?  Initially our archaeology lab thought it was calomel but the chemical analysis didn’t show any chlorine.  The most interesting components were mercury and sulfur, which could possibly indicate cinnabar, the ore from which mercury is obtained.  The image below is a close up of the mercury and shows the sulfur (dark circles) surrounded by the brighter mercury.

Mercury residue analysis 2

Other elements detected include carbon, oxygen, and trace amounts of iron, silica, and aluminum.  A closer look at the DART analysis suggests that the mercury compound might be in the dried remains of a fat or oil based on the presence of substances that form when fats decompose over time.

What does all this mean?  Unfortunately, without more research, it’s hard to say what was in the bottle other than the basic components already detected.  Because it’s a medicine bottle, our assumption is that the residue it contains was a treatment of some sort in which case we’re dealing with a soldier who had an ailment.  Common Civil War-era uses for mercury-based medicines were treating skin sores and lacerations, internal and external parasite infections, syphilis, and constipation, to name but a few.

What is even more interesting is that a nearly identical bottle which also contained a hefty amount of mercury was recovered across the river just a few years ago by Dovetail Cultural Resource Group from another Civil War context.  Read more about their discovery here.

Soldiers throughout history are known to have carried their own medicines with them so it’s very cool to see actual physical evidence of that.  As to the exact medicine, perhaps we’ll know someday but for now let’s just say it was definitely bad medicine.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Bad Medicines: Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup

It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when products weren’t covered in labels listing all their ingredients in great detail. We are used to labels promising the absence of unhealthy chemicals. We are accustomed to labels warning when a product was packaged in the same facility as an allergen. Product safety is serious concern of manufacturers and customers. We, as a society, are growing increasingly aware of what is going into our bodies.

Label with an allergen warning

Before the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1906, products did not carry ingredient labels. Regulations on medicines were especially lax, compared to today. In this blog, we begin exploring historic cases of “bad medicines” that were used by someone living or working either at Ferry Farm and Kenmore long before federal regulations came into play. Medical history is a profound example of how even well-intentioned people can make lasting and deadly mistakes.

People have lived at or worked on Ferry Farm for over 300 years. We have archaeologically excavated hundreds of thousands of artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries. Among these artifacts are fragments of glass in all shapes and sizes. Many are bottle fragments- 47,926 of them to be exact. We can’t always determine the function of a bottle from the fragments found, but when we do find enough pieces to identify the bottle’s function, we excitedly begin research into its use.

One such artifact is a larger piece of a patent medicine bottle, one that was large enough to make out the embossed lettering on the side and identify its former ingredients. The bottle contained Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, first marketed in 1849. Its basic contents were morphine and alcohol so, I suppose, the soothing part of the name was indeed correct.

Fragment of Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup bottle

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup bottle fragment excavated at George Washington’s Ferry farm.

Complete Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup bottle

Complete Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup bottle. Credit: P0mbal / Wikipedia

Today, Avinza® is a common morphine sulfate medication prescribed to patients suffering chronic pain. The FDA has covered its bases on the use of this medication, thoroughly describing how to take this medication without dying. One section very forcibly states:

“Swallow AVINZA whole. Do not cut, break, chew, crush, dissolve, snort, or inject AVINZA because this may cause you to overdose and die.” [1]

What is the recommended dosage for this medication, you ask? Around 60 mg of this morphine sulfate PER DAY for an adult. [2] Mrs. Winslow’s soothing syrup contained a whopping 65 mg of morphine PER OUNCE with slack rules on exactly how many drops to give to a teething infant.

You read that correctly folks – a teething infant.

Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup advertisement 1

Advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Credit: Museum of Health Care at Kingston

Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup advertisement 2

Advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Credit: The British Library

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrups and other such 19th century medications led to the deaths of thousands of infants. Several children died from withdrawal symptoms after having taking the medication for an extended period of time, but most simply fell asleep never to wake up. Knowing little about drug reactions at the time, and due to the higher infant mortality rates in the 19th century, the cause of the deaths were often blamed on “crib death” (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS) or whatever ailment that was causing the child to be fussy enough to drug in the first place.

It wasn’t until 1905 when investigative journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams exposed the unregulated world of patent medicines in The Great American Fraud.

This publication attacked every type of patent medicine with testimonies from doctors and patients as well as scientific reports from trusted sources. In the section aptly titled “Baby Killers”, Adams detailed how various “soothing syrups” led to infant deaths from the mid-1850s to 1905.

Shockingly, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup wasn’t the most deadly such syrup in terms of morphine content. Irreparable damage had been caused by all of the different morphine cocktails available on the market in the 1800s. As grieving parents began to realize what had actually happened to their children, these products were taken off the market.

With an enraged public and 509 pages of proof from Samuel Hopkins Adams, Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, creating the FDA to ensure the safety of American food and medicines.  Still, reports of child death caused by soothing syrups persisted until 1910.

[1] https://www.fda.gov/media/116920/download

[2] https://www.rxlist.com/avinza-drug.htm#dosage

“I Look Not On Things Beneath Me”: Our Snobbiest Artifact, a Wax Seal Stamp That Needs To Dial Back that Sass

‘Haughty’ is not a word used often to describe artifacts.  That is, of course, unless the artifact in question is a glass wax seal stamp with a kind of snooty message on it.  Of diminutive size (smaller than a dime) with a pretty little flower in the center it proclaims in reversed letters “I Look Not on Things Beneath Me”.

Kenmore Wax Seal Stamp 1

Wax seal stamp excavated by archaeologists at Historic Kenmore.

Seal Excavated at Kenmore 2

Closeup view of the wax seal through a digital microscope.

Drawing of Wax Seal Stamp

A drawing of the wax seal stamp with the text reversed so it is legible.

Initially thought to be a signet ring, archaeologists at Ferry Farm reexamined it and determined the itty bitty blue piece of glass is actually a wax seal stamp used to personalize letters.  This seems to be an odd choice of message for the recipient of a correspondence but who are we to judge?

Found at Kenmore, this pretty little thing likely dates to the late Victorian period and would have been worn by a woman, possibly at the end of a chatelaine.  Chatelaines were all the rage with Victorian women and consisted of a long chain worn around the neck with charms at the end, which could be tucked into one’s dress or belt.  These charms often had practical uses.  Common chatelaine charms included tiny scissors, cute vials, petite magnifying glasses, and minuscule mirrors.

Unfortunately, some fashionable lady lost this at Kenmore over a hundred years ago, possibly while wandering through the garden, drink in hand, and idly thinking of sending off a letter sealed with a snarky wax message reminding everyone that “I Look Not on Things Beneath Me.”

It’s a good thing that we archaeologists don’t take the same attitude.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

The Mystery of the Mane Comb… SOLVED!

A little more than a year ago we published a blog post highlighting a horse’s mane comb excavated years ago at George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm. Though the rusty iron mane comb was incomplete, a lone, decorative “G” located along the top of the comb hinted at a longer name we hoped might be “G.[eorge] Washington.”

Mane comb excavated at Ff

Mane comb excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Fortunately, two outside sources soon came to our attention that confirmed our suspicions. A reader of the blog sent a note disclosing his family has a mane comb very similar to ours.  This comb is more complete than ours but more importantly, it has “G.Washing” inset above the teeth!

Blog reader's family mane comb

Blog reader’s family mane comb.

A second source turned up in an online auction in which a horse mane comb was listed for sale with other early 19th century items.  This comb is a wonderfully complete specimen with “G. WASHINGTON” clearly inset with hollow cut lettering in the upper section of the comb above the teeth.

Complete mane comb

Mane comb in an online auction listing. Credit: LiveAuctioneers.com

Our blog reader was not sure how old his mane comb was, and the auction listed theirs as “Federal Period” (early 19th century).  All three examples have similar rope molded decoration along the upper edge of the comb and on the lettering, and only our comb has a slightly different spacing in front of the first letter.  Considering everything, we think that’s enough proof! “G.WASHINGTON” it is!

Washington memorabilia is ubiquitous, commemorating everything including his birth, his death, and his Revolutionary War and Presidential experiences.  Statues, medals, buttons, paintings, ribbons, and hundreds of other products have been made to honor our first president over the last 220 years since his death in 1799. It makes sense that these mane combs are part of that heritage, made as homage to his memory. Why there aren’t more of them out there, I don’t know. But I love the fact that one of these combs made its way back to the farm on the Rappahannock River where George grew up.  Ferry Farm is where he spent his formative years learning not only how to ride his horses, but  also developing those leadership skills he would need to one day lead the Continental Army and eventually the United States of America.

Judy Jobrack
Co-Field Director, Archaeology Lab Assistant

Ferry Farm’s Oldest Artifact

Many visitors to George Washington’s Ferry Farm are surprised to learn that about a quarter of the 750,000 artifacts excavated by Ferry Farm’s archaeologists were created by Native Americans. However, given that indigenous people were living in the land we call Virginia for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans, it makes perfect sense. The vast majority of these Native American artifacts are stone flakes that are the byproduct of stone tool manufacture (think sawdust or wood shavings from carpentry, but stone) and date to the Archaic period (or 10,000–3,200 years before the present day). A very few are even older. In fact, Ferry Farm’s oldest datable artifact is the basal fragment of an ancient jasper dart point made by a people belonging to what we call the Clovis culture.

Clovis points from Iowa's Rummells-Maske Site

Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site in Iowa. These are in the collection of the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist. Credit: Bill Whittaker / Wikipedia

The Clovis culture were some of the earliest inhabitants of North America, and was named after the Clovis “type site” (an archaeological site where a certain culture or artifact type is first recognized) near the town of Clovis, New Mexico. The Clovis people made distinctive projectile points immediately recognizable by their lanceolate or narrow oval shape that tapers to a point at one end and the presence of “flutes” on their bases. These flutes are narrow channels where flakes of stone were carefully removed from both sides of the point to make it thinner. The fluted point could then easily be slid into a notched wooden or bone shaft- a process called hafting- to make a knife or dart (more on darts below). The sides of the point would be ground near the base to dull them so the point could be secured in its haft with sinew or cordage without cutting through these bindings.

Ferry Farm's Clovis point

Base or Proximal end of a Jasper Clovis point recovered archaeologically at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Ferry Farm's Clovis point diagram

The Clovis people were well known for being picky about their lithic (stone) materials and traveled long distances to procure them. The closest quarry from which they could have obtained jasper to make Ferry Farm’s point is in Culpeper, at least 35 miles away. The people who made this dart point may have manufactured it here as we also have numerous flakes of this same jasper.

Jasper Flakes

Jasper flakes similar to the material of the Clovis point — a byproduct of stone tool manufacture — that were excavated at Ferry Farm.

Clovis points date to a fairly narrow period from roughly 13,500 to about 12,800 years ago, and are found almost everywhere in North America, from the Southwest to New England. One of the interesting things about Clovis culture is that it is so widespread- no later cultures made artifacts that are found across such a vast area. It’s even more interesting to consider that these points got deposited all across North America in such a relatively short time span of maybe 700 years. This begs the question: What moved? Was it the people making the Clovis points? Or was it the technique of making the Clovis points? Was there a particular group of fluted-point-making people sprinting across the North American or were there already enough people on the pre-Clovis landscape that it the idea of making fluted points just spread from group to group? Archaeologists are working to answer these questions.

As mentioned, one use for Clovis points were in darts. These darts were not like you throw at a dartboard in a bar. In this context, a dart is like a spear but with a more flexible and lightweight shaft that can fly farther and with greater velocity. Greater distance and speed are achieved by launching the dart with a spear thrower called an atlatl (pronounced “at-lattle”). The atlatl essentially acts as an extension of the arm, creating a longer lever that pushes the dart farther and faster by applying more force with less energy. Although Clovis points were probably multi-purpose tools used as both knives and projectile points. As projectile points, they were likely used on atlatl darts for hunting. Although the extent to which Clovis people relied on meat from such huge creatures is debatable, they probably used their fluted points to bring down a few mammoths and mastodons, at least in the western United States.

What do you think the owner of the Ferry Farm Clovis point was doing with theirs when they lost it? We may never know, but what we do know is that it gives us evidence that people were living along the Rappahannock River nearly 13,000 years ago. We can still find their tools and those tools piece together the whole story of Ferry Farm’s landscape and people!

Joseph Blondino, Archaeologist
Field Director, Dovetail Cultural Resource Group

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor, The George Washington Foundation

When a Toy Hatchet is so Much More: Trench Art at Ferry Farm

Lead Hatchet - Flat Side

Lead toy hatchet excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This is a Memorial Day story of a tiny hatchet excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  For such a diminutive object it speaks quite loudly to our local history in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Initially, archaeologists at Ferry Farm assumed it was a pewter toy souvenir given out or sold in 1932, when our country and Fredericksburg celebrated the 200th anniversary of George’s birth.  Indeed, cheap pewter toys were very popular during the time period.

 

A closer look at the provenience, or the location on the Ferry Farm landscape, where the artifact was recovered paints a more complex picture.  Provenience is very important in archaeology because whatever is excavated around an artifact paints a more complete picture than one object all by itself.  A reexamination of all the artifacts from the context where the hatchet was found revealed that nothing from that strata (we excavate in layers) had any 20th century artifacts in it, nor did the two strata above it.  In fact, the youngest artifacts from these strata were all mid-19th century.  Additionally, although the archaeologists who excavated the hatchet didn’t know it at the time, the excavation unit from which the hatchet came sat right inside the Civil War-era trench that runs across the property.

Civil War Trench

Excavated area containing the footprint of the 18th century Washington house at Ferry Farm showing a 19th century Civil War trench running the length of the house and beyond.

This revelation shut the door on our ‘it’s a 20th century souvenir’ narrative but opened the door to an even cooler one.  A close examination of the hatchet showed that it didn’t have mold seams, which are always present on cast pewter toys.  Furthermore, for some reason, it had one smooth side and one textured side leading us to believe that it was handmade, not machine cast.  This was supported by a thorough internet search to find an identical toy hatchet, which came up empty, further supporting our new theory that this piece was a one of a kind.  The textured side resembled the grain of wood so we surmised it had been cast in a simple hand carved wooden mold.  All of these clues, combined with its location within a Civil War trench, made us suspect that the hatchet was crafted by a soldier, possibly from a lead minie ball.  The hatchet is likely ‘trench art’.

Lead Hatchet - Mold Side

Textured side of the lead hatchet. See photo at the start of post for at image of the smooth side.

Trench art is defined as objects either made by soldiers and POWs or by civilians using military items such as brass shell casings or lead bullets.  This simple lamp, owned by the author, was made using a 105 millimeter brass artillery shell casing.

Lamp - Artillery Shell

Lamp fashioned from a portion of a 105 millimeter brass artillery shell casing.

To further support our identification of the hatchet as trench art, we took the artifact to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources where the amazing Katherine Ridgeway analyzed it using XRF or X-ray florescence analysis.  This non-destructive technique determines the composition of metal.  We also brought along a few minie balls recovered from the same unit for comparison.  It turned out that what we thought was a pewter hatchet was actually a lead hatchet with a similar compositional profile to minie balls, which are mostly lead with trace amounts of other metals such as tin and nickel.  While minie balls vary in their composition due to their imprecise method of manufacture, the hatchet was still a close match.

Minie Balls

Minie Balls – rifled musket bullets. From left to right: .557 Enfield Minie Bullet, Burton Pattern Minie Bullets .58 Springfield (x 2), Williams Bullet missing zinc base, .69 Caliber Minie Bullet for modified 1843 Springfield Musket. Credit: Mike Cumpston / Wikipedia

One can just imagine a bored Union soldier whittling the mold and then melting down some of his bullets to pour into it.  He likely chose the hatchet form because of the famous cherry tree story, in which young George Washington owned up to hacking his father’s cheery tree with a hatchet by proclaiming ‘I cannot tell a lie’.  The soldier would have been well-versed in the Washington cherry tree myth, which was set at Ferry Farm by Mason Locke Weems in his first biography of Washington, published in 1800. By the 1860s, the story was nationally known.  Additionally, letters Union soldiers wrote while encamped at Ferry Farm indicate they knew the site’s connection to Washington. They even went so far as to send home cherry seeds for their families.

While the identification of the hatchet is now secured, we have so many more questions.  Who was this soldier?  How many hatchets did he make and why did this one come to be left behind in his trench? Was it a souvenir for himself or did he send one home to his family or share with fellow soldiers?  Did he survive the war?  Unfortunately these are mysteries that will likely never be solved but that make for great pondering on this Memorial Day.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Lecture – Drinking with the Washingtons: Archaeological Evidence of Colonial Imbibing at Ferry Farm [Video]

On Tuesday, May 7, 2019, Archaeologist Mara Kaktins, Ceramics & Glass Specialist at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “Drinking with the Washingtons: Archaeological Evidence of Colonial Imbibing at Ferry Farm.” Mara explored a wide variety of beverage-related artifacts from teawares to punch bowls and discussed how cups and glasses reflected efforts by Mary Washington to demonstrate the family’s economic status and refinement.

Join us on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 for “Food in the Eighteenth Century” when Deborah Lawton, Park Ranger at George Washington Birthplace National Monument, will explore the new dishes and changing tastes that marked the foodways of the eighteenth century. Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit http://www.kenmore.org.

Glass Guns: A Late 19th/Early 20th Century Phenomenon

Recently, archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm came across an odd glass fragment in our collection.  We poured over it, passing it from person to person trying to figure out what it was.  Then came the ‘ah-ha’ moment: it was a gun barrel.  That’s odd, right?  Turns out it isn’t.

Glass Gun Barrel Sherd

Glass gun barrel sherd excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This story starts in the late 19th century when machines to blow glass were developed and glass finally became a fairly cheap commodity.  Add to this the discovery of natural gas, an inexpensive fuel, on the East coast and boom…a revolution in glassmaking.  Previously, a team of glass blowers made all glass objects by hand one at a time. Now, machines could crank out dozens of bottles a minute and American households (and landfills) began filling up with glass.

Glass novelties exploded in the early 20th century, with their heyday hitting during the Great Depression.  Figurines and bottles were pressed into novel shapes like telephones, fire trucks, boats, hats, every animal imaginable, chairs, dust pans, and the list goes on and on.  Much of this glass was given away as incentives or premiums to buy products like flour, movie tickets, toothpaste, detergent, an oil change, you name it.  Much of these glass is now termed ‘Depression glass’, which most commonly refers to the brightly colored yet cheaply manufactured tablewares common in antique stores today.

Most of the glass guns of this era were bottles that held either candy or whiskey (big disparity, there).  These guns were small with the consumable of choice poured from end of the barrel.   The candy guns were filled with brightly colored hard candies and could be given out as prizes at carnivals or purchased cheaply at a five and dime store.  The gun-shaped whiskey bottles were frequently either purchased as souvenirs or given out as promotional samples.  Once emptied, many of these guns became toys.

Our barrel, however, is solid.  Solid glass guns are far less common.  Most exhibited a non-glass grip and were modeled after actual guns available on the market.  Ours appears to mimic a snub nose revolver.  It is unclear whether this was intended as a toy or a curio, although we suspect those lines frequently blurred.  Regardless, during the 1940s and ‘50s with great advances in chemical technology most glass novelties were replaced were replaced by the newest cheap material…plastic.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Chock Full o’ Minie Balls: A Civil War Mystery

Old, crushed, and rusted food cans in and of themselves aren’t terribly interesting, at least not to me.  But when the can contains 150-year-old bullets, it becomes very interesting indeed.  Recently, while going through our artifact collection database, I came across an item excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm nearly 20 years ago and simply listed as a ‘can’.  Wanting to know the exact nature of this can (Was it a food can? Was it a paint can?), I looked at the database’s comments section, which sometimes describes an artifact in more detail.  The comment read:  “Smashed can containing Minié balls.”  Now this can had my full attention!  I had the can pulled from artifact storage and was not disappointed.  It was, as advertised, a flattened can with at least 3 visible Minié balls lodged inside. Furthermore, there was something not visible rattling around inside of it.  Because it had simply been cataloged as a ‘can’, it escaped the notice of our crack team of research archaeologists for two decades.  I began investigating!

Flattened Can Containing Minie Balls 1

Flattened can containing Minié balls excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Flattened Can Containing Minie Balls 2

The end of Minié ball sticking out of the can.

First, I wanted to know the age of the can.  I knew the Minié balls dated to a little over 150 years ago when Union soldiers were stationed at Ferry Farm during the Civil War. The can, however, may have been from a later date.  In oral histories, people who lived at Ferry Farm in the 20th century have mentioned collecting Civil War bullets in cans so my initial assumption was that this was the forgotten treasure of a relic hunter.  The next step was to examine the other artifacts recovered with the can at the same time and in the same spot on the Ferry Farm landscape.  All of these artifacts were from the mid-19th century.  Furthermore, the can was excavated from smack dab in the middle of a Civil War trench that runs across Ferry Farm.  So the can and the bullets were from the same time period.

Minie Balls

Various types of Minié balls from left to right: .577 Enfield Minié Bullet, Burton Pattern Minié Bullets .58 Springfield (x 2), Williams Bullet missing zinc base, .69 Caliber Minié Bullet for modified 1843 Springfield Musket. Credit: Mike Cumpston / Wikipedia

But the can didn’t look anything like a typical cartridge box.  It looked like a run of the mill tinned food can and what was rattling around inside?  It was time to do some science!  I took the can to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources where their awesome conservator Katherine Ridgway was kind enough to x-ray the can.  The x-rays proved the can was a food can and that the rattling object inside was another Minié ball.

FFcan_xray02_20180608_cn

X-ray images of can containing Minié balls. Credit: Katherine Ridgeway / Virginia Department of Historic Resources

While we now know a lot more about our can now, one mystery still remains. Why did a soldier store some of his bullets in a can?  What we do know is that, at some point, the can was abandoned or forgotten at the bottom of the trench and then crushed either under a boot or by the weight of the dirt once the trench was filled in after the war.  A 150 year old moment in time captured in the archaeological record.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Some Like it Hot …But Probably Not This Hot: The Archaeology of a (BIG!) Fire

Twenty years ago, archaeologists digging at George Washington’s Ferry Farm unearthed the remains of a mid-eighteenth century kitchen.  It was immediately obvious from the state of the artifacts that this kitchen had not simply fallen into to ruin and been abandoned – it had burned down.  While this is fairly interesting in and of itself, a reexamination of the kitchen fire artifacts this year revealed surprising information about the intensity of the fire.

Map of Kitchen Site

Overhead image of George Washington’s Ferry Farm showing location of the kitchen that burnt down in the 18th century. Credit: Google

What first struck us was the sheer density of artifacts in this kitchen. We recovered A LOT of artifacts.  Furthermore, these broken sherds could be mended to form almost whole bottles, crocks, jugs, pans, and such.  The number of artifacts and the fact they could be put together to form entire objects tell us that the Washington family and their slaves did not have much, if any, time to salvage what was inside the burning kitchen.  Food, wine bottles, food storage and preparation vessels and utensils, furniture, and more all destroyed exactly where they stood.  Think of this kitchen as a mini Pompeii or Titanic. Just about everything that the Washington’s had in their kitchen went down with the ship and was still there, just squished and burned.

A preserved moment in time like this fire is a great opportunity for archaeologists to study the Washingtons but it comes with one big problem—most of the artifacts were totally cooked and absolutely toasted beyond recognition in some cases.  Soft metal artifacts made from lead and copper, for example, were reduced to melted blobs by the fire.  Ceramic vessels appear to have exploded from the heat and were reduced to blackened sherds.  Some of the glass bottles survived with a minimal amount of warping from heat but the majority were melted or even burned in a process called ‘devitrification’.  And oddly enough there was very little animal bone, which is usually ubiquitous in kitchens found archaeologically.

To put the intensity of this kitchen fire in context here are some quick statistics (in Fahrenheit):

  • Lead melts at 621.4 degrees.
  • According to the National Institute of Fire and Safety Training, the average modern house fire tops out at around 1,100 degrees.
  • 1,400-1,800 degrees is the temperature at which bone will be destroyed
  • Copper melts at 1,984 degrees
  • Glass melts between 2,600 and 2,800 degrees.

Since the Washington kitchen fire was hot enough to actually burn glass, not just melt it, we’re looking at a fire that likely exceeded 2,800 degrees.  That’s incredible!  It also explains why there was so little animal bone recovered. Most bone was probably completely destroyed by the flames.

Extremely Burned Tin Glaze

Extremely burned tin glaze ceramic recovered from the kitchen site at Ferry Farm.

Devitrified Glass

Devitrified glass from the burnt Washington kitchen

Melted Cooper Alloy

Melted copper alloy excavated from the Ferry Farm kitchen

Blob of Lead Alloy

Blobs of lead alloy recovered from the kitchen site

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Slightly burned wine bottle from the kitchen

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A second slightly burned wine bottle

So, how on earth did the fire get that hot?  We’ll probably never know, unfortunately.  Some possible explanations may be the environmental conditions at the time of the blaze – a hot dry day with high winds could produce a perfect storm for a wooden kitchen to turn into an inferno.  The fire also may have started at night when few people were awake to notice and try to put it out, although presumably the kitchen housed enslaved people, as was common for that time period.  Another culprit may have been what was kept in the kitchen.  There were dozens of wine bottles in there. While we call them ‘wine’ bottles today, they were actually all-purpose vessels that held any kind of spirituous liquid including harder alcohol like gin, whiskey, and rum, which are highly combustible.  Animal products such as lard, tallow, beeswax, and even whale oil for lamps were likely stored in the kitchen and all burn quite well for long periods of time.

Regardless of the fire’s cause, it is clear from archaeological evidence that it happened quickly because not much within the structure could be saved, if anything.  We also know that it burned extremely hot and for a sustained period of time in order to have caused so much damage to the items within.

Finally, perhaps, the last and the biggest mystery is where the replacement kitchen was located.  Kitchens were almost all outbuildings because, as you may have deduced, they tended to catch on fire easily.  A colonial household absolutely required a kitchen, however, and another would have been built almost immediately. Somewhere on the landscape at Ferry Farm, there is another kitchen waiting to be discovered archaeologically.

In the meantime, The George Washington Foundation plans to reconstruct the original Washington era kitchen so visitors can experience the sights, sounds, and smells of an eighteenth century kitchen, minus the blazing inferno, of course.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor
Ceramics & Glass Specialist